October 2009

Is shared governance generational?  Does it have a strong appeal to younger members of the academy?  Can it survive the types of changes that some predict will take place as colleges and universities evolve to meet the challenges of the 21st century?

In June 2009, the Chronicle of Higher Education “asked seven scholars from several fields and generations how they think the academic workplace —and, in particular, the job satisfaction and expectations of a faculty career —will change over the next 20 years.”  Here’s an excerpt from one response.

“Research director at the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education

I envision two possible but very different academic worlds 20 years from now. One is the path of least resistance —maintaining the status quo. If we do not reimagine the academic workplace and change the supporting culture, practices, and policies accordingly, one possibility is that it will look much like it does today, but with still fewer tenured and tenure-track faculty. If current trends continue (from a third of the professoriate tenured in 1997 to one-fourth in 2007), or slow slightly, it is likely that only around 20 percent% of all instructional staff will be tenured or on the tenure-track. Faculty members then will be less satisfied than today because they will have had to assimilate and compromise their generation’s values (collaboration, transparency, community, flexibility, diversity, interdisciplinarity, work-life integration) to fit into the mold created and institutionalized many years ago by ‘traditionalists’ (competition, secrecy, autonomy, uniformity, homogeneity, disciplinary silos, 24/7 careers).

We are, in 2009, seeing signs of decline as doctoral students vote with their feet —heading to the private sector, the government, or other non-profits. A recent study of over 8,000 doctoral students in the University of California system showed that upon beginning their studies, 45 percent% of men and 39% percent of women wanted to pursue careers as professors with an emphasis on research, but those percentages dropped to 36 percent% and 27% percent respectively as time progressed. In the sciences, the shift was more dramatic. Why? For both men and women, a major factor was the perceived inflexibility of an academic career at a research university; and for women, being unable to reconcile family life with career pressures in this environment.

The other path will require rule re-making that reflects the 21st- century global, social, demographic, economic, and technological realities, as well as the values of new faculty members and doctoral students. We should ask them what they would like if given the opportunity to rethink, and possibly rewrite, the current system.”

Some suggestions received from comments:

1.  Gather definitions of shared governance.  Find the commonalities.  Go from there.  See comment.

2.  Everyone “should get to ride, but not to determine the final destination.”  See comment.

The literature of shared governance tends to focus on the role of faculty, administrators, and governing boards.  The readings that were posted on 10/26/09 illustrate this focus (although the AAUP/ACE/AGB piece does include some discussion of students).

All of this raises the question–is shared governance truly about sharing?  How do students and staff fit in?  Should alumni be part of shared governance?  In other words, who gets to ride the shared governance train and where do they get to sit?

Last academic year Emily Grannis, a senior campus writer for The Post, did a series on shared governance at Ohio University.  One of the articles asked faculty, administrators, and students  to define “shared governance.”  You can read her article here, but to quote one of the telling findings: “The Post received 22 unique definitions of the term from 26 OU sources.”

Andrew Jackson famously stated that it was a “poor mind indeed which can’t think of at least two ways to spell any word.”  Perhaps then we should rejoice that as a community we “spell” shared governance in multiple ways.  But if there is no common place for our academic community to anchor its definition of shared governance there is bound to be confusion and frustration.

Apparently, Ohio University isn’t the only institution that finds itself in need of a way to capture and concentrate  the complexities of what shared governance is and how it should operate.  There’s an abundant literature on the subject.  Some common readings on shared governance could serve as a common place to begin our discussion.

Stanley Fish in an article on shared governance suggested that while there may not be a “general model of governance, shared or otherwise,” (is that the case?) there are “general, even philosophical, considerations that will pertain to any conversation about governance” (that so?  what might those be?)

Please join in this university-wide conversation on shared governance sponsored by the Executive Vice President and Provost and the Executive Committee of Faculty Senate.